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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

‘Working America’ Sets Out to Organize a Million Workers

Josh Eidelson’s “AFL-CIO’s Non-Union Worker Group Headed Into Workplaces in Fifty States” at The Nation spotlights a promising new project:

The country’s largest non-union workers’ group will soon announce plans to establish chapters in every state, achieve financial self-sufficiency and extend its organizing–so far focused on politics and policy–directly into the workplace.
“This organization has done really what nobody else thought could be done,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told The Nation, “and that’s recruit more than three million people without a union to be part of the labor movement.”
That organization is Working America, the AFL-CIO affiliate for workers without a union on the job. Created ten years ago, it now claims 3.2 million members–more than any of the individual unions in the AFL-CIO, or any of the other “alt-labor” groups organizing and mobilizing non-union workers in the United States. “We’re taking the momentum that we’ve built organizing workers in communities,” said Working America Executive Director Karen Nussbaum, “and beginning to organize a community in the workplace.”

Nussbaum envisions Working America chapters in all 50 states. “We want to figure out a way to make membership more open, to make membership in a union not depend on workers being willing to endure trial by fire in an election or extended pitched battle with the employer for voluntary recognition,” adds AFL-CIO General Counsel Craig Becker. Eidelson reports that a critical part of the campaign is establishing “financial self-sufficiency,” and:

Lacking union contracts with automatic dues payments from members, such groups generally draw the majority of their funding from donations from unions or non-profits. “In the long run, that’s the litmus test,” said Nussbaum, “because worker organizations that aren’t self-sustaining can’t be democratic.” Groups that are “dependent on outside funding,” she added, can “meet objectives, but they don’t sustain and build the labor movement in the long run. And I think that’s the challenge for us at this point.”…Organizers said last year that 15 percent of Working America’s members pay dues (suggested payment: $5 per year); they acknowledged that its membership ranks include people who no longer remember signing up in the first place.

University of Texas Law Professor Julius Getman, author of “Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement” believes that Working America could help if “it puts the AFL-CIO in direct contact with workers, which is something that doesn’t always happen…there are lots of layers of bureaucracy and authority between the AFL-CIO and workers on lots occasions.” he believes it could help “develop a greater sense of working class solidarity” among non-union workers, and offer “a sense of being important, and being involved in something worthwhile.”
Restoration of a vibrant trade union movement in the U.S. remains a critical prerequisite for a stronger Democratic Party and a thriving middle class. Working America is looking increasingly like the vanguard organization the labor movement needs to make it a reality.

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